Pope Paul VI: Prayer, Holiness, and the Life of Faith

Pope Paul VI was a man of prayer. 

As a man of prayer, he was also deeply concerned about its decline in the modern world. It was a concern that anticipated the immense crisis of belief today. He called on the faithful to resist the loss of faith and hope, and throughout his pontificate he tried to use Holy Years to bolster the response of Catholics to cultural decline and the crises within the Church. He also issued the Credo of the People of God, the drafting of which was shaped heavily by the great philosopher Jacques Maritain.

Paul’s preoccupation with the loss of faith and spirituality was exemplified by his address to the bishops of Asia in 1970:

In our day we are witnessing the decline of prayer, and you know the causes of this. Yet in favor of prayer we have two great — though different — resources: the first is the liturgical reform promoted by the recent Council. The Council has not only renewed the outward form of ritual, always according to certain traditional norms, but it has also given fresh life to the sources — doctrinal, sacramental, communal and pastoral — of the Church’s prayer.

In addition to his contributions through preaching and writing, Pope Paul offered the Church and the world the example of the saints to remind everyone of the council’s universal call to holiness. He canonized eighty-four saints, including multiple groups of martyrs and more recent figures, such as the Americans Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann.

The pope also repeatedly reminded Catholics everywhere of the holiness of the Church. In his 1964 encyclical on the Church, Ecclesiam Suam, Paul wrote:

A vivid and lively self-awareness on the part of the Church inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged it, His holy and spotless bride, and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today. This actual image does indeed, thank God, truly bear those characteristics impressed on it by its divine Founder; and in the course of the centuries the Holy Spirit has accentuated and enhanced these traits so as to make the Church conform more and more to the original intention of its Founder and to the particular genius of human society which it is continually striving to win over to itself through the preaching of the gospel of salvation. (10)

This article is from Saint Pope Paul VI. Click image for more information.

He was not naïve, though, adding that “the actual image of the Church will never attain to such a degree of perfection, beauty, holiness and splendor that it can be said to correspond perfectly with the original conception in the mind of Him who fashioned it.”

The imitation of Christ, devotion to the Blessed Mother, the perfection of the virtues, the sacraments, and the joy of a life of prayer: Striving to grow in these, and thus in holiness, was and is essential for the members of the Body of Christ — the Church — in order to spark authentic reform and to proclaim Christ Jesus to a world longing for hope and yearning for the eternal.

Pope St. Paul VI on Prayer, Holiness, and the Life of Faith

Religion of its very nature is a certain relationship between God and man. It finds its expression in prayer; and prayer is a dialogue. Revelation, too, that supernatural link which God has established with man, can likewise be looked upon as a dialogue. In the Incarnation and in the Gospel it is God’s Word that speaks to us. That fatherly, sacred dialogue between God and man, broken off at the time of Adam’s unhappy fall, has since, in the course of history, been restored. Indeed, the whole history of man’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which He prolongs with men in so many different ways.

Ecclesiam Suam, 70 (August 6, 1964)

Imitation of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the regal way to be followed to attain sanctity and reproduce in ourselves, according to our forces, the absolute perfection of the heavenly Father. But while the Catholic Church has always proclaimed a truth so sacrosanct, it has also affirmed that imitation of the Virgin Mary, far from distracting the souls from the faithful following of Christ, makes it more pleasant and easier for them.

Signum Magnum, II, 1 (May 13, 1967)

Mary is also the Virgin in prayer. She appears as such in the visit to the mother of the precursor, when she pours out her soul in expressions glorifying God, and expressions of humility, faith and hope. This prayer is the Magnificat,312 Mary’s prayer par excellence, the song of the messianic times in which there mingles the joy of the ancient and the new Israel.

— Marialis Cultus, 18 (February 2, 1974)

Are We not right in saying that charity is the goal of the Church’s practice of the spiritual life? Is it not true to say that the more perfect and more joyful realization of charity is the goal of all theological study and of the practice of Christian piety? Both these things encourage Us to meditate on the scriptural and sacramental treasures of which the Church is heir, guardian, mistress, and minister.

Ecclesiam Suam, 56 (August 6, 1964)

Many passages in the Gospel show us that we are dealing not just with one Devil, but with many.319 But the principal one is Satan, which means the adversary, the enemy; and along with him are many others, all of them creatures of God, but fallen because they rebelled and were damned — a whole mysterious world, convulsed by a most unfortunate drama about which we know very little.

— General Audience (November 15, 1972)

This matter of the Devil and of the influence he can exert on individuals as well as on communities, entire societies or events, is a very important chapter of Catholic doctrine which should be studied again, although it is given little attention today. Some think a sufficient compensation can be found in psychoanalytic and psychiatric studies or in spiritualistic experiences, which are unfortunately so widespread in some countries today.

— General Audience (November 15, 1972)

The Christian must be a militant; he must be vigilant and strong; and he must at times make use of special ascetical practices to escape from certain diabolical attacks. Jesus teaches us this by pointing to “prayer and fasting” as the remedy.

— General Audience (November 15, 1972)

The Holy Spirit also gives you the grace to discover the image of the Lord in the hearts of men, and teaches you to love them as brothers and sisters. Again, He helps you to see the manifestations of His love in events. If we are humbly attentive to men and things, the Spirit of Jesus enlightens us and enriches us with His wisdom, provided that we are imbued with the spirit of prayer.

Evangelica Testificatio, 44 (June 29, 1971)

It is through faith that we gain this awareness of the mystery of the Church — mature faith, a faith lived out in our lives. Faith such as this gives us a sensus Ecclesiae, an awareness of the Church, and this is something with which the genuine Christian should be deeply imbued. He has been raised in the school of the divine word, nourished by the grace of the sacraments and the Paraclete’s heavenly inspiration, trained in the practice of the virtues of the Gospel, and influenced by the Church’s culture and community life. He has, moreover, the tremendous joy of sharing in the dignity of the royal priesthood granted to the people of God.

Ecclesiam Suam, 36 (August 6, 1964)

Every evangelizer is expected to have a reverence for truth, especially since the truth that he studies and communicates is none other than revealed truth and hence, more than any other, a sharing in the first truth which is God Himself. The preacher of the Gospel will therefore be a person who even at the price of personal renunciation and suffering always seeks the truth that he must transmit to others.

Evangelii Nuntiandi, 78 (December 8, 1975)

image: Pope Paulus Vi Accompanied By Pres. Zalman Shazar (R) And Members Of The Diplomatic Corps Walking On The Red Carpet To His Car After The Official Welcoming At Megiddo / Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Saint Pope Paul VI: Celebrating the 262nd Pope of the Roman Catholic Churchwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.


Matthew Bunson is Senior Contributor for EWTN and Senior Editor for the National Catholic Register. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the author or co­author of more than fifty books, including OSV’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, and the Encyclopedia of Saints. His Encyclopedia of American Catholic History was named Reference Book of the Year by the Catholic Press Association, and his book Pope Francis was named Biography of the Year by the Association of Catholic Publishers. Bunson is also host of the EWTN series The Doctors of the Church.

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